When Martha Demson moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast as a young actress studying with Sanford Meisner in the early 90s, her first steps through the doors of the Open Fist Theater Company changed her life forever. The nonprofit, which became home to generations of artistic talent, paid $3,000 a month for its theater and the one-acre parking lot surrounding it.
“We had no money for production budgets. Everything was recycled and repurposed from movie sets and anything we could borrow, but we had dreams,” said Demson, president of Theater Producers of Southern California and artistic director of Open Fist. “We argued about our dreams and changed our dreams all the time, but that wasn’t the point. The fact was not only that we had dreams, but that we could still imagine ourselves dreaming in the future.
Today, the $3,000 that was used to pay the rent can’t even cover the company‘s monthly Covid testing costs. The rent has tripled, as well as the construction costs of sets and costumes.
“It was faith in our future dreams that kept us going,” Demson explained. “30 years later, our dreams are dark…We’re still losing $15,000 a month, and we’re one of the lucky ones…When we look at our future, it’s getting shorter every day.”
California lawmakers, artists’ unions, performing arts employers, arts advocates and Hollywood stars recently met at the Boston Court Theater to urge Governor Gavin Newsom to sign Senate Bill 1116 into law. , written by Senator Anthony J. Portantino and Senator Susan Rubio to invest in the arts to create jobs and prevent the demise of more performing arts organizations by creating the Fair Compensation Fund for the Sector non-profit arts.
“We are here to help these badly affected broadcast venues survive,” Senator Portantino said. “Many of our young people are first introduced to the arts through this theater around the corner, whether they are volunteering or attending their first performance.”
For Senator Rubio, her love for acting began as a child when she landed the lead role in an elementary school show.
“It really inspired me,” she described. “It gave me hope. I come from a downtown community in downtown Los Angeles in the 70s, where kids like me just didn’t have that. You didn’t have access to the arts. You didn’t have access to cinemas. It was very difficult to be part of the big community. And so when I started doing these little shows in elementary school, it just opened my eyes.
During the pandemic, the performing arts industry has been crushed due to the inability of people to gather in large groups indoors. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the unemployment rate for artists in 2021 remained at 7.2%, double the national level before the pandemic.
“I happen to have the honor of representing the densest square mile of theaters off Broadway in New York City, between Lankershim Boulevard and Magnolia,” said Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian. “There were more than 22 small theatres. 10 of them have not yet reopened after Covid, so it was high time for us to take the appropriate measures to make these investments necessary.
According to a survey commissioned by Arts for LA of more than 70 performing arts organizations across the county, theater operating capacity and audience attendance have declined by 50% while ticket revenue has declined by a third of pre-pandemic levels.
“Producing theater is very, very difficult,” said Kate Shindle, president of the Actors’ Equity Association. “Producing non-profit theater is more difficult, especially as we all grapple with the impact of Covid on the live performing arts.”
Shindle expressed his belief that California has underinvested in the performing arts for years, citing its ranking as 28th in the nation in arts funding per capita.
“It’s no coincidence that communities across the country change for the better when the arts take hold, but it’s a bitter pill when that same growth brings those same theaters out of those neighborhoods,” Shindle said. . “A 2018 UNESCO study reported that “the greatest subsidy for the arts does not come from governments, patrons or the private sector, but from the artists themselves in the form of unpaid or underpaid work “. It’s time to change that.
The goal of SB 1116 is to address the impacts of the pandemic on the performing arts industry by providing grants to nonprofit organizations in need to help bring in artists, actors, choreographers, dancers, designers, directors, musicians, producers, managers, technicians and all other staff return to the payroll.
“SB 1116 is the result of almost unprecedented collaboration, at least in my experience, between employers, workers and legislators,” Shindle described. “This is especially important for theaters trying to serve historically underrepresented and marginalized communities, who often don’t even qualify for grants given to their multimillion-dollar counterparts.”
The bill will provide funding for production and non-production employees and include safeguards against employee misclassifications. It will also require employers to provide their policies on harassment prevention as well as diversity, equity and inclusion to encourage safe and inclusive workspaces for all workers, whether their work is funded or not. by a grant. Through SB 1116, theaters in need will be able to receive significant reimbursements, which are reduced as they grow.
“SB 1116 is an investment in employment. It’s an investment in small business,” said Gustavo Herrera, CEO of Arts For LA. “It’s also an investment in the economic development of regions across the state of California and here in Los Angeles…According to a 2022 study by the Otis Report, Los Angeles’ arts, culture and entertainment generated more $160 billion in revenue, nearly a million jobs in the region. I want us to make no mistake about this: arts, culture and entertainment are key industry sectors here in Los Angeles that drive economic growth in the region alongside retail, transportation and hospitality.”
For the author of the bill, Senator Portantino, SB 1116 is not just about economic growth and job security. It’s about saving the spaces where people of all ages and backgrounds can come together and express themselves and their dreams through performance.
“Great theater is about challenging our way of thinking and encouraging us to fantasize about the world we aspire to,” Senator Portantino said. “Let’s do more than fantasize and inspire. Let’s get this bill signed so we can simply support the arts and artists across California who entertain us, who challenge us and our conventions, and inspire us to be a better society… The show must go on.
Although Los Angeles’ performing arts and entertainment sector continues to feel the financial toll of the pandemic, with many theaters still struggling to survive, many arts advocates throughout the community expressed a sense of hope.
“Coming out of Covid, I feel every day how thrilled our community is to be back, how thirsty they are to have the opportunity to laugh and cry and feel empathy, and to dream together to build a better world,” Demson said. “California’s small performing arts community brings people together to tell the stories that reflect our identity and let us know who we are and who we can be together. If we lose our small performing arts organizations, not only will we lose our dreams, but we will lose the dreamers of tomorrow.